Shwedagon Pagoda is the golden spire at Yangon's heart, 100 gleaming meters on Singuttara Hill. It is the most recognizable landmark in the city, a jewel in the skyline. We visited on a stormy afternoon, hiking the 3 km from our hotel. The rain held off until just after our arrival, finally pounding down as we walked the broad, gilded avenue to the temple.
Shwedagon Pagoda was built in 500 BCE, or perhaps 600 CE, depending on which historian you ask. Either way, it is the most important Buddhist site in Myanmar, and one of the most important in the world.
In the legends of its founding, two brothers were traveling on a trade mission when they met an incarnation of the Buddha. They offered him gifts of food and drink and in return, he gave them eight hairs from his head. The brothers placed these in a jeweled box which they carried back to their home near Singuttara Hill. There, with the aid of local spirits, they discovered a secret chamber where three other relics of previous Buddhas had hidden away from the world. The brothers decided to build a shrine worthy of these objects, enlisting the aid of a nearby king. Together, they constructed the gilded glory that is Shwedagon Pagoda.
The massive structure is made of bricks that have been plated in gold. The equivalent of 21,000 bars went into the dome, donated from wealthy and powerful figures throughout Myanmar's history. The upper spire is studded with rubies, sapphires, and precious stones. And at the very peak lies a 76 carat diamond.
But it's not just an opulent religious site. It's also the symbolic soul of Myanmar. It's seen protest marches, demands for political freedom and democracy, and served as the focal point of reformers. In 1920, a student protest on the steps of the pavilion led to the creation of a publicly financed national school system. In 1946, General Aung San led protests for independence from British rule. Forty years later his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi gave a speech there in front of half a million Myanmar people, calling for elections and an end to military dictatorship. She was jailed, but the movement continued. In 2007, 30,000 monks marched to the steps of the pagoda to demonstrate for democracy, in defiance of the military's orders.
Today, Myanmar is cautiously approaching the demanded reforms, with elections in 2012 and again in 2015. And Shwedagon Pagoda remains a hub of tourism and spirituality, steeped in history.
Erin and I walked a circuit of the grounds, examining the stupas, marveling at the many statues and relics.
The rain finally stopped, leaving a chimerical, vibrant sky. The golden towers and marble grounds gleamed. We passed a clutch of pilgrims praying at Tuesday's shrine.
Later, I learned that Myanmar Buddhism is heavily interwoven with astrology. In this tradition, it isn't as important what month you were born as what day of the week. There are eight primary symbols, one for each day (Wednesday is unique with two, for the morning and the afternoon). I was born on a Monday, so my symbol is the Tiger. As per the Myanmar zodiac, I am intelligent, intuitive, and respectful of local laws. Erin's is Saturday, the dragon. Her zodiac says she's philosophical and kind, a loner with a great sense of humor and a strong work ethic. If you're curious what your zodiac sign would be in Myanmar astrology, this website has a handy guide with more information.
Shwedagon Pagoda has a shrine to each day of the week, at cardinal points around the structure. Pilgrims typically walk clockwise around the spire to take in the whole. Many then make individual prayers at the shrine of their birth. Tradition is to repeat a silent wish for future success while pouring water over the head of the Buddha statue, or making offerings of flowers.
But Erin and I just walked the circumference as the sun began to set. The light faded, but the towers and spires still glowed.
We left to head home in the deepening dusk. Behind us, spotlights came up, illuminating the central structure like a nighttime sun. It was beautiful.